Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sitting Down - an attempt at poetic verse

And now, for something completely different... some attempts at poetry from the opinionated layman.  In this installment, we contemplate one of life's luxuries when living in New York City:

The subway, back when I was a kid.  For everyone today who never knew the subways to be like this,
count your blessings!

"Sitting Down"

Luxuries come in small doses
In New York City.

Down below
Where the scent of urine lingers in fetid air
Where a sliver of concrete is an island
Populated by dozens – even hundreds of people
For only a collection of minutes.
But it can seem much longer than that
When there’s only so much space
On that dirty concrete sliver of an island.

Trains come screeching into and out of the station
Blowing dust and debris and trash
Thin aluminum doors jerk open
And human beings of all sorts pop out.
Some pushed, some stumbling like they were leaning on the door before it opened
Most just rushing, rushing, rushing.
Only when a train is put out of service do people leave a subway car slowly
Reluctantly, wistfully
As if not wanting to leave what a minute before
Had been someplace from which they otherwise would have preferred to escape.
(“Sick passenger” is one of the things you don’t want to hear as a subway passenger
because that means your train is automatically going out of service
and there’s nothing you can do about it.)

So all ashore that’s going ashore
Having bolted from the train
But there’s no pause, no interlude... nope!
Even before the last person exits, others are pushing through the doors, clamoring inside
An intricate weave and bob and dance
As some rush out, and some rush in
Through the same little openings in an aluminum tube.

And let’s not forget the bags
The shopping bags of all sizes from stores posh and plain
The hand-held briefcases with their hard corners
The enormous backpacks with their swinging straps
The diehard travelers with their rollable luggage
Crazy moms with their strollers
Musicians with their trombone and violin cases
The Chinese immigrants with their bags of raw vegetables, meat, and fish
The corporate women with an impressive number of designer leather bags hanging from both shoulders…
Back in the 80’s, punks boarded trains with enormous black boom-boxes perched on their shoulders.
Older women in faded London Fog topcoats boarded trains with a flimsy wire basket on two bent wheels.
Everybody's got something to haul, it seems.

cautions the conductor in a bleak voice that betrays the frequency of the warning
And whether you were able to hear the conductor or not, the doors suddenly spring shut
Whether you’re ready or not
Whether people are nearly sliced in two by the closing doors or not.
After all, the pace of the city can’t stop because you might miss your train
Although some people will give it a try
And push their briefcase between the closing doors
Or their arm, or hand
Sometimes the doors pop right back open as sensors detect the obstruction
Or sometimes they close hard
Or sometimes, to the amusement of those inside the car
They slam open and closed in rapid succession, pounding against the stubborn briefcase (bodily appendages have already been pulled away) like the doors are beating the obstruction into submission.
If they’re quick, the briefcase’s owner can dart onto the train
And everyone can proceed.
And all this within mere seconds.
Life happens fast in New York.

And there – ahhh! – in the middle of the car
But preferably at the end of a row
Or maybe in a corner
There it is
The prize of the subway rider
The throne of the victor, the patient, the weary
The orange square that heralds relief:
An empty seat!
Luxuries come in small doses in New York.
And most subway seats are colored orange.
Which makes orange the subway rider's color of reward.

The rules for the empty seat are at once complex and simple.
If the car is mostly empty, everyone can sit in complete freedom.
If the car is SRO, people may stand out of rare deference to others
Or because theirs is the next stop anyway
Or because they’ve been sitting all day at work
Or because personal space is also a valuable commodity in the dense metropolis.
Obviously infirm people
Wobbling on crutches or with a cane – are oftentimes given a seat
In a magnanimous gesture not wholly forgotten in the City
And obviously pregnant women are given seats too
But that’s about the limit of subway rider generosity.

Its that orange square, however
Gleaming from its plastic frame
That is the prize
People scope the car quickly
Their eyes darting throughout the car even as they dash inside
In an instant, calculations are made
Evaluations of the neighbors of the orange square
Is that guy drunk? Is that woman too obese that she’ll lean on me?  Might that kid mug me?
All up and down the car
And then, in competition with the others who have just entered this microcosm
You make your move, stake your claim,
Or sometimes in exhaustion
Or sometimes defiantly….
And then
You think… 
...What’s that smell...?

Monday, July 20, 2015

What's Still True Behind Cosby Affair

Considering the steady drumbeat of allegations against comedian Bill Cosby, and the release of details Cosby himself once admitted regarding his extramarital affairs, perhaps it's time to re-visit this essay I wrote last year on the topic:

From November, 2014:

I really, really, really like Bill Cosby.

He's genuinely funny, he's G-rated, and he's been a stellar advocate for racial harmony.

Well, at least he's G-rated in public. For years, he's been quietly dogged by accusations of sexual impropriety behind the scenes.  In 2005, his lawyers reached an out-of-court settlement with a Pennsylvania woman over her charges of molestation after the police determined there wasn't enough evidence to officially charge the celebrity.

And as celebrities go, Cosby has been one of the biggest.  After earning millions of dollars during his eponymous hit comedy's run during the 1980's on NBC, he reportedly considered buying the network from its parent company, General Electric.  From his TV shows to his Jell-o commercials to his many public appearances, Cosby personified the prototypical father and husband, since his marriages and family lives - both onscreen and off - seemed so stable and robust.  When a son of his in real life was killed in 1997 during a botched robbery, the country was shocked by the reminder that such indiscriminate tragedy can strike even a beloved patriarch like Cosby.

Unfortunately, it's been the alleged tragedies of a premeditated sort that have suddenly blown up in Cosby's face, as a fifth woman has recently come forward with new claims of Cosby as a sexual predator.  A former supermodel says that Cosby drugged and raped her in a hotel room years ago - all of these incidents happened years ago - which fits a pattern of abuse each of Cosby's other accusers have outlined.

Making matters worse for Cosby is that one of his lawyers scoffed at the most recent accuser, contemptuously suggesting that hers represents a desperate grasp for notoriety and relevance as her career fades.

Nor does it help that Cosby's response to all of this current furor has been silence.  Indeed, Cosby's response has been brazen in its timidity.  He's either personally said he doesn't talk about such allegations, or he lets his lawyers say it for him.  And on the one hand, it's an understandable response:  if they're not true, why dignify such sordid accusations with an official response?  On the other hand, if they are true, appearing to take the high road by not talking about them can look equally meritorious to the public.

And speaking of Cosby's public, it currently seems as if most Americans want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and honor our memory of him with deference to his steady insistence that the allegations completely lack merit.

Yet, what if the allegations have merit?

In a way, this is exactly the type of "he said - she said" dilemma that makes many allegations of sexual misconduct extremely difficult to investigate, let alone prosecute.  Compounding this dilemma is the fact that Cosby has been a Hollywood star since the 1960's, and a black one at that, which makes him quite rare when it comes to America's celebrity universe.  One of his accusers has publicly stated that Cosby is an "untouchable," and that's why she never went public earlier with her story.  It's only now, as she sees what may be her final chance at wresting an apology from him, that she's come forward to join the growing chorus against Cosby.

It's hard to see what else these woman could hope to gain from their allegations, except perhaps an apology.  Whatever statutes of limitations there may have been have likely expired, so it's not like Cosby faces any jail time.  He's already reached some sort of financial settlement with one of his accusers, so maybe these other women see this as a chance to get some money out of him before the 77-year-old edges ever closer to death, which would end their money hopes.  But Cosby's passing would also end their hopes of getting a personal apology from him, if indeed, he really did to them what they say he did.

As Cosby and his representatives remain mum on these charges, Hollywood's public relations machine has decided that he's no longer worth the liability.  Upcoming talk show appearances have been cancelled, a new television project with NBC has been scrapped, and his signature series, the Cosby Show, has been pulled indefinitely from cable TV re-runs.  Not because Cosby is guilty, but because the entertainment industry loathes associations with damaged brands.  And Cosby has suddenly become a damaged brand.

Not just from the accusations against him, but his own attempts at ignoring those accusations.

Die-hard Cosby supporters would counter, "well, what else is he supposed to say, other than that they're not true?"

And you know what?  It's hard to come up with anything else to say, isn't it?  We're back to the "he said - she said" dilemma, in which nobody really wins.  Cosby can continue to deny, and lose a few media projects that would have paid him a fraction of what he used to command.  But whether it's fair or not, the aura of suspicion gets thicker with each woman who tells her story.  And the women, for all of the public's sympathies for victims, are treated with suspicion as well, since we don't really know if they're inadvertently making Cosby the actual victim.

Besides, if her story is accurate, what should any female supermodel be expecting - rightly or wrongly - when she's alone in a hotel room with a man?  If something did happen, might she simply be harboring regrets?

Meanwhile, the deeper danger in all of this can be seen in how it affects other victims of sexual abuse.  If an abuse victim doesn't have irrefutable, obvious evidence to back up their claim, the skepticism they may face can make coming forward with an allegation frightfully foreboding.  If the abuser happens to be a highly-regarded or powerful person with far more resources at their disposal - whether in the form of public admiration, money, or influence within the industry employing them, the odds of a victim achieving credibility become even longer.

Whomever is lying when it comes to the Cosby allegations is not only working against their own self, but they're reinforcing the public's weariness in trying to parse the truth out of similar cases, whether they involve international celebrities or not.

The most we can hope for is that the truth comes out sooner rather than later, not just for the benefit of whomever is the victim here, but for all future legitimate victims of sexual abuse.

And perhaps the innocent victims of false accusers, too.

Why Don't We Sin?

We sin when we knowingly do something wrong.

But are there other ways to sin?

For example, the sin of knowingly doing something wrong is called the "sin of commission," because we commit a sin.  There's also an inverse to that, called the "sin of omission," when there is something we know to be right, but we don't do it.

But have you ever thought about why we don't do stuff that is wrong?

Think about it:  Do we not run stop signs because doing so is illegal, or because we risk putting ourselves in danger when we do it?

Are there times when we don't lie simply because God isn't honored by falsehoods?  Or do we try to always tell the truth simply to preserve the integrity other people presume us to have?

Granted, it's not wrong to respect stop signs only because doing so is a wise thing to do.  And it's not wrong to be truthful only because we want to project an air of authenticity.

But if our willful sins are offensive to God, could our willful compliance with moral and legal codes be just as offensive?  Might God not be pleased with our "goodness" when we use it more to protect our own self-image than honor God?

Do you refuse to commit adultery because adultery defames God, or because your spouse would sue you to Kingdom Come if you were adulterous?

Why do you watch your weight?  Is it more to present a good-looking physique to society, or to honor God's teachings against gluttony?

Why do you tithe?  Is it more to benefit from tax deductions, or because God is honored when you return to Him a portion of what He's already given you?  And do you tithe a straight ten percent, because that's what most preachers say is adequate?  Or do you happily tithe more, simply because you know doing so honors God?

Can you see how the reasons why we do or don't do some things could also be sinful?  It all has to do with our motivations, right?  And the One Whom we're respecting, honoring, and trying to please with our actions.

This is why moralism and legalism are such thin rationales for human behavior.  And why the evangelical church appears to be losing the battle over social morality.  We look at actions - or the lack of actions - and evaluate how good somebody is.  Instead, God looks at the heart.

A sobering reality, is it not?

Living one's life in that reality is a real eye-opener when it comes to evaluating everything we do.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What Changed for Iran Deal to Be Legitimate?

Paul Combs - US News and World Report
Paul Combs - US News & World Report
Did I miss something?

President Obama and a small group of allies claim to have patched together a deal with Iran that will loosen the Islamic country's nuclear capabilities while flooding the beleaguered country with tens of billions of dollars of sanctions relief.

In other words, Iran gets a lot of what it wants, and Obama hopes he's kicked Iran's nuclear threat can down the road another 15 years, which is the life of this proposed agreement.

Bounce... bounce... bounce...

It doesn't even really matter what this deal was about.  It could have been about water, or Persian rugs, or coffee beans, or crystal ornaments, or Disney cartoon characters.  The point is the same, regardless of the commodity:  is Iran a deal-honoring country?

What raises the stakes here is that we're not talking about water, or Persian rugs:  we're talking nuclear capability.  Iran's nuclear capability.  And we think we can strike a deal with them over something like that?

Maybe I fell asleep at the precise moment in time that Iran became a country that honors its debts.  And basic civil rights.  And stopped calling for the death of America.  Maybe I missed something here.

But I don't think so.  The President has come out swinging in defense of his Iran deal, painting the terms to which he's consented in colors of confidence, obligations, and oversight.  We're being told that one of the most reckless supporters of international terrorism and Islamic infighting will dutifully comply with scientific checks of its nuclear program.  We're being told that Obama has created a safer world for whomever will be America's president in 2030.  We're being told that with Obama's grand bargain with Iran, we'll be able to better negotiate with the hostile state in the future when it comes to energy, arms, and other political agendas.

Yet the humongous fallacy in all of our President's ebullient hucksterizing is that of all the nations with which we should be brokering deals, Iran is at the bottom - or close to it - when it comes to their integrity - or their lack of it.  This isn't simply a Republican or conservative take on a Democratic liberal's pet project.  This is raw reality.  Iran is the country that held American hostages for 444 days back when a young Barak Obama was still in high school.  Iran is the country ominously described by the usually-staid Condoleezza Rice as a "central banker for terrorism."  It is widely believed that Iran has been actively involved in terrorist strikes within India, Palestine, Kuwait, Lebanon, Argentina, Bulgaria, and Saudi Arabia.

And we're trying to bargain with these people?

President Obama believes that his deal with Iran is the best way to avert a war with them.  But how do we know war with Iran without this - or any - deal is an inevitability?  For a president with a Nobel Peace prize collecting dust somewhere in an Oval Office closet, negotiating with state sponsors of terrorism seems a silly pursuit, as if war is otherwise in the offing. 

Peace does not come by offering handouts to villains, does it?  What in this deal prevents Iran from provoking war?  What in this deal prevents Iran from satiating its appetite for violence across the globe?  Iran already has one of the world's worst records of cheating on its international non-proliferation agreements.  Now Obama says we can rest assured that inspections of their nuclear program will enforce Iran's compliance with this deal's terms?

What has changed with Iran?  I must have missed it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Honest Abe - In His Own Words

"President Lincoln and Family," an engraving by A.B Walter in 1865
and published by John Dainty, Philadelphia;
from my family's private collection of vintage Americana

The following is an essay I wrote last year for Abraham Lincoln's birthday.  I thought it was appropriate to revisit the legacy of our Civil War president as, today, America roils over the legacy of its Confederacy and its most notorious flag:

"I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way
the social and political equality of the white and black races." 
- Abraham Lincoln, September 18, 1858

On this day in 1809, in a tiny Kentucky village, the 16th president of the United States was born.

For all of his modest beginnings, however, Abraham Lincoln would become one of the most pivotal figures in American history.  And after his assassination in 1865, his life would develop a legendary status of almost mythical proportions.  At least among Northerners and minorities, anyway.

For many white Southerners, Lincoln was and has remained a man of tyranny at worst, or duplicity at best.

It has been said that a war's victors get to write its history, and that has indeed been true of America's brutal Civil War.  Although Southern whites have long protested the saintly virtue and stoic resolve that has been inscribed into Lincoln's epitaph, such protestations have been met with derision by a country eager for heroes and anxious to move on from those awful, bloody war years.

It's not that racism didn't - and doesn't - exist in America's North, or that all Southerners were - or are - racists.  The factors that contributed to our Civil War, and its legacy, are far more complex than racism.  There were - and are - raw economic factors, and Constitutional questions, and plain old desperate politicking.  Warring amongst ourselves for four years proved to be the most bitter scourge we've inflicted upon our country to date, and every year, it seems, Lincoln's birthday, or some commemoration of his presidency, increasingly rubs salt into those wounds.

You see, the Lincoln that was wasn't the Lincoln many Americans want him to be.

Ever since I moved to Texas as a teenager, I've heard that the Civil War wasn't about slavery.  It was about states' rights.  Federal officials from the president on down had no right to dictate to states the manner in which they should modernize their economy, which in the South, according to conservative Southerners, was a topic that included slavery only in the context of a labor force.

When I was in college, I heard that the Civil War wasn't about states rights, but about economic prosperity.  The South, thanks to cheap labor from slaves, had become mired in an agrarian economy, while the North was rapidly expanding, thanks to the Industrial Revolution.  The bit about slavery was, more or less, the straw that broke the camel's back.

Yet when I was a small boy, growing up in rural New York State, in a region near Syracuse that was, during the Civil War, a hotbed of Abolitionist fervor, Abraham Lincoln was practically deity.  He won freedom for the slaves because he valued their humanity.  And throughout almost all of my life, I've held to that notion, even if states rights and economics were valid components of the Civil War.  More than anything, I'd been taught that Lincoln was the great emancipator, and I assumed people who claimed otherwise were simply poor losers, or blatant racists.  I never idolized Lincoln, or worshiped his legacy, but since most of the grumblings against him were coming from Southerners who seemed preoccupied by the Civil War, it was easy for me to assume that Lincoln provided them a better scapegoat than their venerated general, Robert E. Lee.

Perhaps, however, it's inevitable that tides turn, even in political history.  Because recently, it seems that more and more questions are being raised publicly about how we should view Lincoln and his role in civil rights.  In 2009, which was the 200th anniversary of his birth, several controversial books about the president were published, and one of them seemed to sum up what many of them were saying.  It was entitled Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race, by George M. Fredrickson, and it dared to revive a debate between historians about the level of Lincoln's own personal racism.

Wait, you say - somebody's saying Lincoln was a racist?

Well, actually, it's simple deduction, based on Lincoln's own speeches and writings.  When he was running for the United States Senate in 1858, he mentioned more than once that he did not believe blacks and whites should be socially or politically equal.  He once scoffed at the notion of "negro equality," claiming that only fools believed such a thing.  Even after delivering his Emancipation Proclamation, he was trying to negotiate with some Central American countries to deport America's blacks.  In fact, if he wasn't assassinated so soon after the end of the Civil War in 1865, who knows if Lincoln would have succeeded in his clandestine deportation efforts?  Like John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated before he had the chance to irreparably damage his own reputation, Lincoln died at a sort of zenith of his presidency, before his true beliefs about blacks could have been codified into whatever post-slavery laws he might have pursued during Reconstruction.

To be sure, Lincoln opposed the institution of slavery, but not because it involved the commoditization of human beings.  Lincoln opposed slavery because it provided the South an unfair economic advantage in the eyes of Northern industrialists, who had to hire their employees.  Lincoln also desired to preserve the Union, believing that both the North and the South created a far more formidable nation together than they could as separate entities.  But in terms of black people having the same intrinsic rights, qualities, and humanity that whites have?  No, Lincoln's writings and speeches prove that he did not believe that at all.

So where does this leave us today, as we've come to equate emancipation with civil rights?  The same civil rights that Lincoln, were he alive today, would likely want to deny non-whites?

Some people give Lincoln the benefit of the doubt, rationalizing something about him "being a product of his day," where, for example, it was practically inconceivable even in the North for a black person to marry a white person.  Lincoln's viewpoint, supposedly, contrasts with the progress we've made as a society, where today, racists may frown on interracial marriage, but that doesn't keep it from successfully happening.

Is that enough?  Is taking what's left - Lincoln's practical opposition to slavery on economic grounds - a sufficient redemption of his legacy?  Or might it simply help to explain why many Southerners seem to still be fighting the Civil War, with their continuous refusal - that is often mocked - to embrace the leader who proved militarily superior?  Remember, since them ol' Yankees were the ones who wrote the war's "official" history, it was in their best interests to let their hero's faults slide into the dustbin of inconvenient memories.

For better or worse, a politician like Lincoln likely wouldn't have survived very long in today's world anyway.  Not with our sound-bite news organizations, insatiable social media, and on-demand information technology.  When people now ask where all of our great leaders are, perhaps it's more accurate to wonder how great our past leaders would have been had they been forced to endure the same deep scrutiny our leaders today endure.  Then again, perhaps Lincoln really was a visionary for his day, and the progress he made towards equality - even though he didn't believe in it personally - was as good as could have been made in 1860's American society.  If he were alive today, Lincoln might have navigated our current political waters with the same duplicity many other modern politicians do.  He said what he said back then to win elections.  That's all politicians do today.

What we can learn from all of this is that national leaders can't necessarily be extracted from the day and age in which they lived, and examined by a different era's standards.  This is particularly true in a democratic republic, where a society, as they say, elects the leadership it deserves.  It's one of the reasons why I bristle when right-wingers try to romanticize America's past, and put our Founding Fathers on pedestals.  It's easier to fashion our own nostalgia than it is to wrestle with facts for which we may have to dig.  Or facts which cause us to relinquish long-held beliefs and assumptions.

We're learning that Lincoln wasn't the saint many of us were taught he was, and that he might have even been more of the villain many Southerners have been grousing for generations that he was.  Is that enough to revoke his tenure as one of America's greatest statesmen?

Probably not.  Despite his disappointing shortcomings, he was still a pivotal president, upon whom hinged the direction of a country that hadn't even reached it's centennial when he was assassinated.  He was a racist, but he sought the survival of the union of a country that has come to identify his faults for what they are.  That counts as progress, doesn't it?

Our modern leaders can only hope to approximate such an imperfect legacy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Curtains for the Stars and Bars
Having grown up mostly in Upstate New York, most of what I first learned about the Confederate Flag I learned from the ornery character "Granny" on The Beverly Hillbillies.

For example, she believed the Civil War was fought between the Yankees and the Americans.  (Think about it for a minute!)

She pitched a fit whenever anybody didn't show suitable respect for the "Stars and Bars."

Stars and bars?  As a kid, watching those old black-and-white reruns of the classic TV show, I thought Granny was talking about cheesy Southern actresses and places that serve alcoholic beverages in dimly-lit lounges.

Of course, some might say my initial impressions of the South weren't very far off at that...

Nowadays, however, I know what the "Stars and Bars" are.  Yet they're still about as anachronistic to all of us in 2015 as my mistaken impression of them was back when Granny was thundering her adulation for Tennessee's old, deep South.  Instead of Tennessee, however, today we're talking about South Carolina, whose state legislature appears poised to remove the Stars and Bars from their capitol building.

This symbolic and historic move comes in the wake of last month's atrocious slaughter of 9 churchgoers by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.  Many South Carolinians -  both white and black - say the time has now come for the Confederate flag to be stricken from official commemoration.  It's something many civil rights activists have been saying - not just about South Carolina, but the Confederate flag in general - for generations now.

Yet it's what the Stars and Bars commemorate that has a small yet vociferous group of conservative Southerners fighting for its preservation.  They say the Confederate flag celebrates the pageantry, civility, gentility, industriousness, and charm of the Old South.  At least... the Old South as today's white folk romanticize it as having been.

Meanwhile, how much of the Old South would the blacks who endured it have celebrated?  Whether they were slave or free?

Forget the tired arguments about the Civil War being about states' rights.  Let's pretend that the Old South was as equally pleasant a time period for blacks as it was for whites.  What else about the Old South is worth commemorating by an official flag?

It's not that all white folk in the South were evil bigots.  It's not that all black folk were abused and mistreated.  Shucks, even back then, women couldn't vote, so for today's modern Southern woman to celebrate the Stars and Bars seems a bit misguided on their part.

Nostalgia has a funny way of clouding our interpretation of the past, doesn't it?  Nostalgia also tends to become more one-sided, the further away we view the things for which we've become nostalgic.  Sometimes cloudy nostalgia is relatively harmless.  But in this case, it perpetuates stereotypes and ways of viewing people - both white and black - that never were healthy to begin with.

Why hold on so dearly to the Confederate flag?  Is the present that much less worthwhile than the past?  After all, the present time is our opportunity to fix past wrongs, isn't it?  Nobody's calling for the Stars and Bars to be outlawed.  They can still serve as a reminder of one of the worst episodes of our country's rambunctious history.  And fly as a counter-point to the sanctimonious abolitionist fervor in the North that often tended to begrudge Southerners not for owning slaves, but for simply having a cheaper workforce than Yankee industrialists did.

Let's not forget that there was fallacy in the Civil War on both sides.  It's just that the North didn't really have as potent a symbol for its cause as the South has managed to preserve for theirs.

Which brings us to today, and the appropriate civic use for the Stars and Bars in a society striving for racial equity.  Sure, removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina's statehouse won't itself fix any past wrongs when it comes to racism.  But at symbols go, isn't doing so a good step in the right direction?

Update:  I believe it's inappropriate for the Confederate flag to fly over any statehouse.  However, as I've heard in some reports, I also believe it is inappropriate for any federal cemetery to ban the Confederate flag from individual gravesites.

Since the Confederate flag can represent different things to different people, as it's applied to an individual citizen's personal belief systems, a certain latitude should be given regarding how individual citizens choose to interpret the Confederate flag.  It can wave over private residences, private businesses, and adorn a person's grave.  Whether a passerby is "offended" by seeing a Confederate flag at another gravesite in any cemetery or not, that's part of "free speech."

Free speech for which, presumably, that American soldier fought.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Jingle Those Liberty Bells

Welcome to Independence Day in America!

At least, the America celebrated by America's white evangelicals.

Next to Christmas, July Fourth is the most overly-romanticized holiday that we white American evangelicals celebrate.  In December, we drape Christ's raw Nativity with a glowing tapestry of fluffy snowflakes.  And on the Fourth of July, we enshrine our Caucasian narrative of American history by invoking God's particular favor upon our land.  We earnestly twist religious themes into patriotic ones, while at the same time ignoring God's own claims that He's superior to politics and nationalities.

White Americans in general - and white evangelicals in particular - have a decidedly myopic interpretation of Independence Day.  It's an interpretation that minimizes huge chunks of our country's history, and glorifies patriotic themes that many white churchgoers formerly used to create those chunks of history we now consider awkward and shameful.

Independence, liberty, personal rights, freedom!  They're all as Godly as apple pie and Chevrolet, aren't they?  Many American evangelicals seem to believe so.  After all, Christ died to "free" us from sin.  We are at "liberty" to enjoy all of God's Creation.  We have all been endowed by our Creator with "certain inalienable rights..."

Oh, wait - that last part isn't from the Bible, is it?  It's part of the Declaration of Independence.  A fine document, to be sure, and one that every American should value.  But divinely-inspired language it is not.

What rights has God given any of us?  We all have only the right to die in our sins, unless we've been forgiven of our guilt of those sins by our personal faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.  But even as faithful sons and daughters of God, adopted as heirs of His promise, the rights He gives us are rights of family and faith.  Not politics.

We evangelicals have been kicked in the gut by our Supreme Court's recent recognition of gay marriage.  We cluck amongst ourselves in dismay and regret at the haughty display of carnality being celebrated by our hedonistic culture.

But hey - isn't our hedonistic culture simply pursuing the mandates of our Founding Fathers?  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  Doesn't "gay" mean "happy"?

Even before the crafting of our Declaration of Independence, religious folk in America seem to have always harbored a skewed perspective of God's design for liberty.  For centuries, both religious and secular Americans have striven to manufacture a society that respects our ever-evolving concepts of what individual human beings need to be content.

Perhaps more than anything else, gay marriage has become the epitome of that quest for contentedness, even if - like everything else - contentedness is a relative concept.

There's nothing wrong with economic prosperity, for example, as long as we don't expect it, or rely upon it.  Only God is guaranteed; not money.

There's nothing wrong with moral values, except that moral values tend to fluctuate with the people group that defines those moral values.

The only nations who are blessed are the nations who place God as their Lord.  But "blessed" in the Bible doesn't necessarily involve abundant finances, or military might, or some miraculous code by which every citizen is content with their place in their society.  Read the Beatitudes to learn what God means by "blessed."

The sooner America's evangelicals realize that independence is not a Biblical virtue, the better we'll be able to love and serve each other - which, by the way, is supposed to be a hallmark of His church.

The sooner American evangelicals realize that liberty is best understood in terms of Old Testament law, and not Constitutional law, the clearer our perspective will be regarding our own personal morality.

The sooner American evangelicals realize that freedom in Christ does not automatically translate into political freedom, the less panicked we'll be as the folks who are pursuing their brand of freedom in our country infringe upon the freedoms we've been blessed to enjoy the past couple of centuries.

Indeed, if this current evolution in American society and politics tells us anything, it's that God's people don't need political independence, liberty, and freedom to be freed from the guilt of our sins.

Maybe when we develop an honest assessment of what Christ offers to us, apart from government and politics, we'll be freed up to be the salt and light our country needs us to be right now.

Jingle those liberty bells!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Walking With Which Light?

Who among you fears the Lord, and obeys the voice of his servant?  Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord, and rely on his God.  Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches!  Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled!  This you have from my hand:  you shall lie down in torment.  - Isaiah 50:10-11

How easy to forget that true Christianity is a walk of faith.

Instead, we Americans are taught to rely upon self-sufficiency.  Even as professing followers of Christ.  But how Biblical is self-sufficiency?

It's not exactly a bad concept, is it?  Unless you inherit your wealth, being self-sufficient usually involves two basic convictions.  You have to value work, which is labor.  And you have to value personal responsibility, in which we endeavor to make sure we don't owe other people something.  Neither labor nor personal responsibility, of course, are wrong.  The Bible teaches that God's people should work hard.  And having the personal integrity to provide for one's needs represents a basic building block for any civilized society.

Indeed, industriousness is a noble quality both inside and outside theology.  But industriousness doesn't necessarily lead to wealth, or abundance, or self-sufficiency.  Plenty of hard-working people are financially destitute.  Meanwhile, a person can be industrious in the wrong things, and accumulate great wealth.  A person can become self-sufficient in bad ways, and even if that person gives away their wealth, does such magnanimity erase the past?  Do the ends justify the means?

In our modern era, we Westerners have made self-sufficiency even more sophisticated.  We enjoy the ability to hedge our bets and shield our assets with financial instruments calculated by actuaries and financiers.  We have portfolios which can be diversified to help absorb unexpected losses in one segment of the economy.  Indeed, the mathematics of economics has become such a trusted field that we've come to expect a robust level of protection for our money.  We expect our money to perform in ways that insulate us from the worst things that life can dump on poorer, less-financially-prepared people.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with being responsible for the assets the Lord gives each of us.  Waste, ambivalence, and carelessness are not virtues.  But how much should any of us rely on the assets entrusted to our stewardship by God?

Especially in a life that the Bible says should be guided by faith, not sight?

"Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches," Isaiah prophesies.  "Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled!"  It's almost a dare, as if the trust we'd otherwise place in our burning torches is being mocked by the holy God of the universe.

Instead, what would a life of faith be like? 

"Let him who... has no light trust in the name of the Lord, and rely on his God."

For us Westerners, that sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it?  Do we intentionally ignore wise counsel about good things over which we're stewards, like money, our families, our careers, or our relationships?  Of course not.  But neither do we walk solely on the basis of that counsel, no matter how wise it is.  We don't walk through life using wise counsel, insurance, hedged bets, or anything else as our primary source of confidence, resources, or comfort.

We still should be walking primarily by faith.  No amount of burning torches can light the path forward for us like faith in God can.

Do we believe that?  Isn't our answer to that question crucial to recognizing the source of our peace?  Or, at least, what we presume to be peace.

It could simply be a woefully misplaced faith.

In Who's light are you walking?